Losing the Plot

Francesca Wade

  • In the Approaches by Nicola Barker
    Fourth Estate, 497 pp, £18.99, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 00 758370 6

Writers who appear in their own fiction do so at their peril: it tends to make their characters pretty angry. Made to suffer cancer, Christie Malry warns B.S. Johnson that he will look stupid when they discover a cure, and anyway, ‘you shouldn’t be bloody writing novels about it, you should be out there bloody doing something about it.’ Jonathan Coe drops in to tell Maxwell Sim that his book is about to end; Sim looks ‘into the eyes of a serial killer’, and suspects that ‘beneath his courteous exterior, this guy was full of nothing but conceit and self-admiration.’ In At Swim-Two-Birds the characters murder their creator (who is, in turn, fictional – Flann O’Brien doesn’t entirely succumb to sado-masochism) and then write their own novel in which he is brought back to life, tried and then tortured. Odd-job man Clifford Bickerton isn’t any happier about being a character in In the Approaches, a novel by ‘that mean cow of an Author’, Nicola Barker. And why should he be? Barker’s characters are usually damaged, disturbed, losers. Bickerton is not in search of an author but trying to escape her, aware that Barker tends to show her people little mercy; from hungry owls, mistimed golf swings, small but deadly pats of frozen butter – there’s little safety.

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